As the incendiary topics of rape and sexual assault have appeared to hijack the 2016 presidential race, they may have also derailed a film that was once seen as likely front-runner for next year's Academy Awards.
"The Birth of a Nation," the critically acclaimed re-telling of Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion openly tepidly at the box office in wide release this past weekend, and some are speculating that its disappointing showing is directly linked to its polarizing writer-director-star, Nate Parker.
Shortly before the film's release, long dormant details about 1999 rape allegations made against Parker (and his co-writer and former classmate Jean Celestin) while he was a student at Penn State University resurfaced. Parker has always maintained his innocence, and was exonerated in court. Celestin was initially convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to four years in prison, but that was later overturned.
Still, news that Parker's alleged victim later committed suicide, and further re-examination of the actor's handling of the incident when it first occurred and his statements since, has generated considerable controversy.
Actress Gabrielle Union, who is in "The Birth of a Nation," and is also a rape survivor herself, first learned of the Parker allegations after her work on the project was already completed. She wrote about her ambiguity about the fallout in a well-received op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, in which she described her own discomfort with the allegations, but also made the case that film (which also features her performing in a scene depicting sexual assault) could serve a valuable role in advancing conversations about consent.
"I believe that the film is an opportunity to inform and educate so that these situations cease to occur on college campuses, in dorm rooms, in fraternities, in apartments or anywhere else young people get together to socialize," wrote Union, who said she read all 700 pages of Parker's trial transcript.
However, Sharon Loeffler, the sister of Parker's deceased accuser, has been highly critical of Union's argument and a number of moviegoers and activists have called for a boycott of "The Birth of a Nation."
Now, Union has come out to say that she understands where these audiences are coming from.
"As a rape survivor and as an advocate, I cannot shy away from this responsibility because the conversation got difficult," Union wrote in a new cover story for Essence magazine. "I don’t want to put myself above anyone’s pain or triggers. Every victim or survivor, I believe you. I support you. I support you if you don’t want to see the film. I absolutely understand and respect that. I can’t sell the film."
For his part, Parker has been making the media rounds, attempting to do damage control after his initial reactions to reports about his past fell flat. "One thing the media did by this thing resurfacing, in my opinion, we need to talk about something that is epidemic in America, that no one’s talking about," he told Steve Harvey last week. "And if my film or if this moment has to be something that puts our eyes or the spotlight on it, then so be it.”
Earlier this year, "The Birth of a Nation" took the Sundance Film Festival by storm. It won the Grand Jury Prize, was purchased by Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million, and it was touted as a potential antidote to two straight years of #OscarsSoWhite.
Now, with its less than stellar financial showing, its future is uncertain. The audiences that did pay to see it seem to like it — it scored a promising A grade on CinemaScore. But critical notices have increasingly grown polarizing, with a number of critics expressing discomfort with the movie's historical licenses and cultural representation.
This has put not just Union, but the entire cast in an uncomfortable position when marketing a film that already had a challenging subject matter, regardless of its controversial star.
"I think the message of 'The Birth of a Nation' is so clear and so important, and it was portrayed so beautifully in this film, that I think if people are willing to give the movie a chance they'll be focusing on how impactful and meaningful this film and its message is," Katie Garfield, who plays Catherine Turner, the daughter of a slave owner told NBC News last month. "I think if people can just sort of take the film for what it is, and how important it is, everything will be more than fine."
But other performers in "The Birth of a Nation" have been more uncomfortable about how and if they should sing its praises.
“It also breaks my heart that there are a contingency, or a community, of folks who are going to stay home because they feel like to see it would be anti-feminist," Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Turner's mother in the film, told BuzzFeed. "They feel that they have to stand in solidarity with the woman who was abused, and I understand that wholly.”
“I don’t want to diminish anyone’s feelings," added actress Aja Naomi King, who play's Turner's wife, in an interview with the Los Angeles TImes. "At the end of the day, seeing the film or not seeing the film is not going to change the world. Changing the world is going to change the world. The film was meant to start a conversation.”